At a sly, sardonic 57, Mark Oliver Everett—son of late physicist Hugh Everett III (who first proposed the “many-worlds” theory of quantum physics), and known to the quirk-pop world as Eels bandleader E—doesn’t mind being considered a misanthrope. After all, he launched his solo career back in 1991 with the pneumatic ditty “Hello Cruel World” from his A Man Called E debut, then bowed in his Eels outfit in 1996 with the equally droll and dismal Novocaine For the Soul from the “Beautiful Freak” parent album, and his melancholy work has been steeped in lyrical studies of death, depression, divorce and darkness ever since—often while the backing music sounds dramatically different, sometimes downright cheerful and celebratory. So when the coronavirus steamrolled in this year, forcing his January tour that was preceding the release of his 13th Eels effort, Earth to Dora, you’d imagine him diving in to such murky metaphysical waters with both feet, maybe even reveling in its thought-provoking depths.
Not exactly, sighs the singer, who recently (with his second wife, now divorced) became a father. He intended the set’s only post-pandemic-inspired song, “Are We Alright Again,” as not some drowsy downer but a chipper pick-me-up tonic, despite its subtly hand-wringing theme.
“I wrote that in the early lockdown days, when it first got bad,” he recalls. “And I was just like, ‘I really need some hope.’ And I was kind of hoping that by the time it came out, maybe things would be a lot better, so maybe it would become this anthem that we could all celebrate, like, ‘Yeah! Now things are better out there!’”
The storm clouds didn’t part as quickly as he’d imagined, though. “And obviously, the song turned out to be the same fantasy it was when I wrote it, but I thought, ‘Well, we all need that hope still!’” And he hastily tacked it on to Earth, keeping his fingers crossed for the future. “Because I think there will come a time when we can finally feel like things are better,” he adds, misanthropic to the bitter end. “But it’s not gonna be any time soon….”
Paste: How is it, home-schooling your three-year old son Archie?
Everett: Well, I think it’s easier for kids that age than it is for older kids. Like, imagine being an 11-year old boy, cooped up in an apartment right now. Man, that would be awful. So littler kids, I think, are more like, “Oh! This is life now! Okay!”
Paste: What keeps him occupied?
Everett: TV. Watching movies. But he just wants to play. Constantly. And he’ll get into some game he wants to play, and you’ve just gotta go along with it. And it’s usually the same thing, over and over again. Until you’re about to go insane.
Paste: Has he inspired any new songs?
Everett: Well, just the one that was on my last album that was kind of like a lullaby. With this one, I kind of actively avoided that — I didn’t want to do the typical ‘new father’ record. But that’s not to say that the next one won’t be 12 “Cat’s in the Cradle!”’ “We’ll get together, then, dad..” Waaah!
Paste: Which is interesting, because a lot of these new songs—however dark the lyrics—feel almost music-box delicate, like lullabies. Even “Okay” and “I Got Hurt.”
Everett: Hmmm. Maybe it’s more parental than I thought! But have you seen the cover of the album, with the clown? It’s an old thrift-shop painting that’s been hanging in my bathroom for about 10 years, and I put it on the cover because to me, it sums up the mood of the album, where he looks like he’s been through some rough times, but he’s managing a little smile. So you know he’s okay. He’s a survivor. He’s going to pull through. And since he’s become the cover of the album, I’ve upgraded him and moved him out of the bathroom. He’s now hanging proudly in the kitchen.
Paste: But you stress that—even though you and your recent second whirlwind marriage ended—this is not a breakup album, per se?
Everett: No. It’s just a collection of songs that are from different periods, and some of them aren’t even autobiographical. Well, some of them are, but the ones that are aren’t necessarily about the same situation or the same person. But I kind of sequenced the album so the listener could take it as the arc of a relationship, if they want to take it that way. But that’s not how it was written. But I think I make it tricky, because I like to tell stories in first person, because that’s usually the most effective way to tell a story. So when I’m saying, “I did this” and “I did that” in a song, people are likely to assume that it’s autobiographical, when it’s often not. But just by doing it in first person, I think it’s a good way to get the listener invested in the story.
Paste: But you’ve always been something of a lone wolf, right?
Everett: Exactly. And navigating this pandemic is easier for people like me that already live kind of a reclusive lifestyle anyway. But even for someone like me, it’s like, “Enough already. This has gone too far.” But the only times I get out of the house, really, are to go for a walk with my kid, or to go to the store sometimes or go to a park. So there hasn’t been a lot of going out, so far.
Paste: And you have two new dogs?
Everett: Well, since Bobby, Jr. died ten years ago, I ended up with two little dogs, kind of against my will, because I am not a little-dog fan. And I had the perfect dog, Bobby, Jr., that was half basset hound. So now I’ve got these two little yappy dogs named Manson and Bundy that I was against being saddled with originally, but now I’m completely in love with them. I love having them around. So that’s how they get ya. We did the tests to find out what they are, and we were hoping that they were Jack Russells or something. But they’re just mutts that are a combination of every barkiest breed of dog you could imagine. But they don’t bark so much as they shriek. That’s probably how I’m gonna die. At some point in the day, there’s gonna be a moment where everything’s quiet, and then some imaginary noise will make one of them shriek and just make me jump right out of my chair. And I’m getting too old for that.
Paste: Have you found any COVID-19 solace in your dad’s multiple-universe theories?
Everett: I hadn’t thought of that. But yeah, maybe we can take some solace in knowing that there’s another universe where this isn’t happening. But who knows? Maybe there’s another universe where something much worse is happening. But that’s the thing I keep trying to remind myself of lately—it could always be worse. One day, it’s like, “Aaargh! This pandemic is killing me!” And then one night, there’s a big earthquake, which actually happened here a month ago. And then you’re like, “Oh, I miss it when it was just the pandemic!” The pandemic plus the earthquake? That’s worse. And tomorrow, it could be the alien invasion. Who knows? So you’ve got to just try to be thankful for how good things are and try not to focus on how shitty things are.
Paste: Your dad seemed to find a lot of comfort in numbers. Can numbers be applied to songwriting?
Everett: Well. I haven’t put the two together yet myself. But they say that math and music are related, but I think in the case of my dad and me, it skips a generation—he got the math thing, and and I didn’t get the math thing at all. I got the music thing. So it’ll be interesting to see if my son gets either of them.
Paste: Besides the clown painting, what other visuals have you gotten into recently?
Everett: Well, on TV, I’m mostly watching kids’ shows, and some of them are quite good—Pepa Pig is one. I think Pepa Pig is great, but unfortunately my three-year old thinks he’s already outgrown Pepa Pig, which is a bummer for me, because I love it. But another good one is Hey, Dougie and of course there’s always Paw Patrol. But I’ve also been enjoying some old Green Acres episodes on METV. But my ex-wide called it ‘The old person’s channel’ because I always wanted to watch it. Because sometimes I’ll get lucky with that channel and see something from the past that I really love. I haven’t gotten into jigsaw puzzles yet, like a lot of other people have. I’ve been oddly busy for someone in a pandemic, just making music and putting a new record out, so I haven’t been in need of a new hobby yet. But that might be coming, since we can’t really go on tour.
Paste: How was it working with Judd Apatow [on the Netflix series Love]?
Everett: That was super-fun. I really enjoyed that. It was a little terrifying, too, being a non-actor alongside a bunch of professional actors. But I learned a lot from it, and I really loved that learning process. The first time I heard about him, I heard he was a fan of my book, but I think he’s been a fan of my music for awhile, too. But we’ve known each other for a while now. But I learned so much from him. He’s really a big fan of improvisations. Everything is scripted, and you do what’s scripted. But then he says, “Okay, now just do whatever.” And that was the part that I really enjoyed—it was really fun to just react to what the other actors were doing and come up with stuff on the fly.
Paste: And there was actually a much larger part intended for you in the new Bill and Ted Face the Music movie?
Everett: Yeah, but I was on tour so they couldn’t shoot it. My ‘dad’ was going to be in it, too — there was going to be someone playing my dad.
Paste: You ever look back on your life and think, “Why me? Why was I, the son of a mathematician, chosen to pursue a conversely-charted career in singing and songwriting?”
Everett: Yeah. I have no idea why. But that’s a good thing for people to keep in mind if they have little kids — you shouldn’t have any expectations about what they’re going to end up doing, because it might just be completely surprising and they’re gonna do it anyway. So Archie likes music, but so far I don’t know how unusual that is for any kid—I feel like most little kids like music to some degree. But one night, we were reading a Pepa Pig book, the one where Daddy Pig takes the kids to his office to show them his work. And my son said, “Can you show me your work tomorrow?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” And we live in a virtual studio, so the next morning, I took him up to the attic, which is the control room, and I lit all the stuff up like the soundboard and I tried to explain what we do there. And then I took him down to the room where I do vocals and I plugged in my guitar and showed him how it goes through the wall and back up to the attic.And then he said, “I’m gonna show you my work now!” And he got out a toy piano and three of his stuffed animals, and a toy microphone and a toy guitar, and they all played “Jingle Bell Rock” for me. And I have to say, that was pretty great.